Sometimes, progress carries an asterisk. That's as good a summary as any of a sad irony from last week's historic election. You will recall one of the major storylines of that day was the fact that, in helping make Barack Obama the nation's first black president, African-Americans struck a blow against a history that has taught us all too well how it feels to be demeaned and denied. Unfortunately, while they were striking that blow, some black folks chose to demean and deny someone else.
Last week, you see, California voters passed an initiative denying recognition to same-sex marriages. This overturned an earlier ruling from the state Supreme Court legalizing those unions. The vote was hardly a surprise; surely there is nothing in politics easier than to rouse a majority of voters against the "threat" of gay people being treated like people.
But African-Americans were crucial to the passage of the bill, supporting it by a margin of better than two to one. To anyone familiar with the deep strain of social conservatism that runs through the black electorate, this is not surprising either. It is, however, starkly disappointing. Moreover, it leaves me wondering for the umpteenth time how people who have known so much of oppression can turn around and oppress.
Yes, I know. I can hear some black folk yelling at me from here, wanting me to know it's not the same, what gays have gone through and what black people did, wanting me to know they acted from sound principles and strong values. It is justification and rationalization, and I've heard it all before. I wish they would explain to me how they can, with a straight face, use arguments against gay people that were first tested and perfected against us.
When, for instance, they use an obscure passage from the Bible to claim God has ordained the mistreatment of gays, don't they hear an echo of white people using that Bible to claim God ordained the mistreatment of blacks?
When they rail against homosexuality as "unnatural," don't they remember when that same word was used to describe abolition, interracial marriage and school integration?
When they say they'd have no trouble with gay people if they would just stop "flaunting" their sexuality, doesn't it bring to mind all those good ol' boys who said they had no problem with "Nigras" so long as they stayed in their place?
No, the black experience and the gay experience are not equivalent. Gay people were not the victims of mass kidnap or mass enslavement. No war was required to strike the shackles from their limbs. But that's not the same as saying blacks and gays have nothing in common. On the contrary, gay people, like black people, know what it's like to be left out, lied about, scapegoated, discriminated against, held up, beat down, denied a job, a loan or a life. And, too, they know how it feels to sit there and watch other people vote upon your very humanity, just as if those other people had a right.
So beg pardon, but black people should know better. I feel the same when Jews are racist, or gays anti-Semitic. Those who bear scars from intolerance should be the last to practice it.
Sadly, we are sometimes the first. That tells you something about how seductive a thing intolerance is, how difficult it can be to resist the serpent whisper that says it's OK to ridicule and marginalize those people over there because they look funny, or talk funny, worship funny or love funny. So in the end, we struggle with the same imperative as from ages ago: to overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
But if last week's vote taught us nothing else, it taught us that persistence plus faith equals change.
And we shall overcome.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
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